Nice Shoes: Or, Tuesday Nights in Jail

Posted on December 12, 2012

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One evening I was coming out of a cell block at the Tuscaloosa County Jail after an hour of ministering to a group of prisoners. The Holy Spirit certainly moved that night since I preached a hot and fast sermon, and my listeners—I thought—were as wrapped up and transformed by the message as I was in giving it.

As I walked out the heavy door, and just before it closed behind me, one of “my congregation” waved me back.

He must want to express his gratitude for such an uplifting message I thought. Thank you Jesus. I knew it wasn’t me, but it is always gratifying to be the messenger.

I stepped back to him.

“Nice shoes,” he said.

I leaned in to him a bit since I am a bit hard of hearing. One tends to lose some of the high tones at my age, and in a jail where sounds reverberate and bounce around, I sometimes did not hear exactly what was being said.

“What?”

“I said nice shoes,” he repeated, this time pointing down to my feet, clad in a pair of—as it turns out—pretty nice shoes my wife had bought for me awhile back. They were, in fact, nice shoes, my first pair of Dansk’s I think. Very comfortable.

But, at the moment, all I could think of was “nice shoes???” After a message from God—albeit delivered by a mere man who was becoming even more mere as the seconds ticked by—this guy only came away with a take on my shoes?

It was a moment of epiphany for me. I was brought down from my lectern of righteousness and high calling to my feet, literally. It was another “Tuesday night at jail,” for me, a wonderful, satisfying moment in my weekly routine where I brought the prisoners eyeball to eyeball with Jesus Christ and his message, or, as it turned out with that one guy that night, eyeball to eyeball with my shoes.

Humility is an understatement of what I felt. It reminded me of Jesus’s lesson about serving. He came to serve us and expected no less of us, to serve each other. Humble yourself before God and fellow man, go to the end of the line, not to the head of the banquet table, wash the feet of your disciples. Wow, I was there, eating humble pie and I should have been feeling immensely righteous.

Of course, later on I realized that my shoes were but an outward expression of my life style. Here I was in jail, dressing down a bit to be like all the other guys, many of them solid working class men, miners, guys who worked in the local industries, like the tire plant, quite a few part time pastors in small churches dotting the city and countryside. I did not want to look too much like the university professor I was, but not hiding it in a veil of false humility either. My wife Louise had bought me a very nice, and very expensive to my way of thinking, pair of shoes, and while my message may have been ordinary, my shoes were not. I forgot to exchange them for something a bit scruffier that night, and I had plenty of those. I suspect a number of my fellow “ministers” probably made more than the professor, although my wife’s trusts lifted us to a comfortable, some would think, affluent lifestyle. I took it all in stride, in my nice shoes of course.

I started going to the jail, the Tuscaloosa, Alabama County Jail, back in about the year 2000. A friend from a small church I was attending in Fosters, Alabama, a small town about ten miles south of Tuscaloosa, had asked me if I could come to the jail one night to help him with a Hispanic prisoner who spoke no English. Since I spoke Spanish, my friend thought I could help. I said yes, not knowing what I was getting into, but never really stopping to reflect on the invitation either, as if I had been going to the jail for years.

Should I have been apprehensive? Did I have second thoughts? Was it inherently dangerous? I thought about all these elements later, but at the time I just followed Brother Carlton into the jail with the supreme confidence that he know what was going on, and under the firm conviction that I walked in the Lord’s path, and so He would watch over me.

It had been a long trip for me. From the “frozen chosen,” as a congregant in a local Presbyterian Church, a big one frequented by many of the right people in town, to a small, rural church in Alabama. Even the name—The Life of Victory—smacked of a world I had once thought at the edge of Christianity, oddballs, given to fervor and shouting rather than prayer and proper reflection.

My first experience up close with the movements of the Holy Spirit in a small Pentecostal congregation left me wondering if I knew anything about the many faces of Christianity. Who were these two people, deacons as I would later learn, racing around the inside of the small church, screaming while some of the others, heads rolled back in some sort of ecstatic trance, pumped their arms up and down, and some even collapsed, shivering piles on the floor of the little church, their human forms shaking from something beyond my comprehension? This was definitely not the inside of a staid, quiet, orderly, Creed-saying service of the type I was familiar with, where the priest or pastor presided over his quiet congregation with dignity, occasionally lifting up a chalice (not his voice) for a ceremony while the choir—all robed in monkish garb– threw in a few dignified hymns composed by someone two, three, four, or five hundred years ago.

I soon discovered that most of the “ministers” who went to the jail on Tuesday nights to minister to the inmates were from small churches scattered around the county, many of them Pentecostal, most of them Southern Baptist, or some variant, in tradition. I wondered, where are the members of the “First” churches downtown? The first Methodist, the first Baptist, the first Presbyterian, the first Episcopalian, and if there was such a thing (there isn’t) the first Catholic?

I was an anomaly, a professor at the local university, by definition probably a doubter and a pointy headed intellectual to boot, but they all welcomed me, and I have never felt a lack of welcome for the twelve years I have been traveling to the jail on Tuesday nights to share the word of Jesus with the inmates.

The ministry at the jail has changed in some ways. I actually have friends now from one or two of the “first” churches downtown who come faithfully and throw in their lot with the rest of us, happily and with no reservations. I took a Jesuit friend of mine in to the jail a few years ago when he was passing through the university on his way to a doctorate in languages.

His first name was Jesus, or more properly Jesús, since he was born into a Mexican-American family in Texas. But we went by Jesse in this part of the country since Jesus is not a common name like in Latin America, and it sounds too, well, too irreligious, for most Americans.

Jesse/Jesús stayed with the course for a few months and preached some wonderful homilies to the prisoners, but there was too much going on in his life and he gradually dropped out of jail ministry. But we remain in touch and good friends and I know he learned of a dimension to the Christian life that gave him an even deeper appreciation for our faith.

The men and women of the jail ministry are a devoted group, changing all the time like our congregations, which are constantly arriving and departing from the jail, some occasionally under their own locomotion and incentive, usually described as an escape, which always makes for an interesting evening at the jail.

The jail ministry is a blessing in my life. If you think you’d like to join us some evening, contact me at lclayton@simplecom.net I’d be glad to take you in, and see, of course, that you come out the same evening. Wear something comfortable, but not too fancy on your feet.